Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | July 18, 2013

The Readiness is All

life-purposeIt does no good to dwell on mortality, so most of us learn not to.  Yet so many books and movies – not to mention the news – bring us back to the ultimate questions:  What will our life be worth, in the end?  What does it mean, really, to be alive?

To those like me who struggle with anxiety or depression, we may eventually find that it’s essential to turn the questions into a challenge, or an invitation.  It’s not easy to maintain this frame of mind in the face of daily worries, annoyances, and conflicts, though.  So I’m especially grateful when a book or film reminds me.

mantelHilary Mantel, brilliant author of Wolf Hall, writes this provocative final paragraph in the book’s sequel, Bring Up the Bodies:

“The word ‘however’ is like an imp coiled beneath your chair.  It induces ink to form words you have not yet seen, and lines to march across the page and overshoot the margins.  There are no endings.  If you think so, you are deceived as to their nature.  They are all beginnings.  Here is one.”

Her narrator, speaking through the lens of Thomas Cromwell, is responding to the execution of Anne Boleyn and subsequent crowning of Jane Seymour.  No one knew in 1536 that King Henry would go on to marry three times more.  And yet, with this ending line, Mantel is also opening a door for each of us, to set down her book and take up another.  Or get back to our lives.  Or write a book of our own.  No beginning lacks an ending, and mobius-strip-like, each ending must fold into some sort of beginning, even if it is one we can’t conceive of in advance.

mobius stairs

BaubyLast week I watched the biopic of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the dynamic editor of Elle who at age 43 suffered a massive stroke and was completely paralyzed.  How horrific to experience “locked-in syndrome,” being fully alert but unable to move, speak, or eat.  Yet Bauby was a talented writer and, with the help of an incredibly patient assistant, penned his memoir of the experience, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, one letter at a time, by blinking his left eye as she recited the alphabet.  He came to accept and embrace the one element of his existence that remained for him:  his imagination. Three days after the book was published, Bauby died of pneumonia.

The film is wrenching to watch at times, yet it so enriches us – with a new appreciation for human nature and our ability to adapt, to re-calibrate what it means to be alive.  Time and again we read of people who overcome incredible odds – cutting off one’s own arm to be freed from a boulder; speaking out for women’s rights after losing one’s face to an acid attack; becoming an Olympic athlete after losing one’s legs.  We are continually awed by those who deal head-on with the “however” lurking beneath the chair and continue to be fully alive, even if only for a few months or days.amputee

Daniel Smith, author of Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety,” reminds us in an essay in last Sunday’s New York Times that anxiety is not a disorder but an emotion – a natural part of the human condition.  If we’re not feeling it, we’re likely either psychopathic or comatose.  “Toss aside the bathwater of anxiety,” Smith writes, “and you will also be tossing aside excitement, motivation, vigilance, ambition, exuberance, and inspiration.”  Any time we face a big unknown, we find ourselves perched on the fence dividing the thrill of possibility and the fear of disaster.  But I don’t think I’d give up the fear if it meant giving up all the rest.

Our knowledge that we cannot control the craziness of life is, I think, a key factor in what makes us human.  Our attitude toward this fact is what determines much of our character and mindset.  Will we dread the dawn or embrace it as a possibility?  As Hamlet reminds Horatio moments before he begins his final sword fight, death will inevitably come – “The readiness is all.”  Readiness for death, yes – but more importantly for those of us who are not likely to be poisoned by a vengeful king any moment – readiness for everything else.


Readiness for the “however” coiled beneath our chair.  We can decide to kick at the little guy, or we can choose to reach down and pat him on the head.  I’m off to a weekend writer’s retreat in Iowa City, and I’m inviting him to ride along.  However . . . I get to choose the tunes.

Should the morning ask me

Do you want blue skies or rain?

I will answer:  Yes.


  1. I love reading your insight on life, Kate. In my visits with Jan, planning for the kitty transfer, we both agreed: you have words neither of us posses, and the skill and courage to put them together and put them out there.

    Be sure you’ve got some Van Morrison for the trip!

  2. I’m grateful to have a few appreciative readers, Lisa. Yes, Van Morrison — and a couple of latest favorites to help me stay awake: Florence and the Machine, and the Arcade Fire!

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